South China Sea standoff: Can Quad check China's encroachment?

DelhiWritten By: Maj General SB Asthana, SM, VSMUpdated: Dec 26, 2019, 08:29 PM IST

Global concern over China's growing assertiveness. Photograph:(AFP)

Story highlights

The global community must continue to condemn Chinese encroachment.

The ‘incremental encroachment strategy’ of China exhibited in the South China Sea (SCS) is a serious concern not only to the countries directly affected by losing their influence over Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), but also to rest of the world as China can exert a monopoly over SCS Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC). Affected countries do not have the adequate muscle power to stand up to China, and hence, will have no choice but to succumb to a one-sided arrangement like China-driven “Code of Conduct” (COC).

Chinese adventurism, therefore, needs to be checked by other prominent maritime powers in the global interest. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) which comprises Australia, India, Japan, and the United States is often being looked at as a potential instrument to check further adventurism of China in the Indo-Pacific region.

The fact that China could build a military base in the SCS despite the presence of US Navy indicates that it does require global condemnation and effort of higher order to ensure that SCS does not become ‘China’s lake’. 

Although Quad may not have requisite teeth as of now, but there is no other alternative than to have the potential arrangement of this kind between likeminded maritime powers having common strategic interests in Indo-Pacific Region. 

The Quad has repeatedly been subjected to varying perceptions regarding its role, viability and prospects. Quad by nomenclature is a security dialogue forum and not a military alliance, hence the expectations from Quad have to be appropriately restricted for the time being.  

Initially, the Quad appeared to be a military and maritime arrangement revolving exclusively around four democracies. 
Many give the credit of the idea of Quad to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe who mooted his proposal within the framework of the “confluence of the two seas”, joining the Indian and the Pacific Oceans. Japan felt that partnership with the US and Australia would be integrated into its ambit besides strategic partnership with India. The four democratic countries of the Quad project themselves to be committed to an open and transparent network which “Will allow people, goods, capital, and knowledge to flow freely”. Quad is, therefore, yet to acknowledge that it has a role to check the adventurism of China in the Indo-Pacific region and could ever operate jointly as a military force for it. In fact, Quad has chosen to be diplomatically correct to say that it is not directed towards any particular country. 

To take the dialogue forward, the Quad needs to urgently converge existing divergences regarding their individual definitions of the Indo-Pacific.   

All Quad members have different threat perceptions in the Indo-Pacific. This impacts their prioritisation in dealing with challenges in Indo-pacific, as well as, their areas of focus. An important issue for effective maritime security cooperation amongst the navies of Quad is while three of the navies (Australia, US and Japan) operate within NATO military alliance framework, India is not part of any military alliance, although a strategic partner of two of them. The trilateral dialogue between the three NATO allies is continuing since 2002 without India. India is the only country amongst Quad members which has unsettled land border with China, and therefore, will have a different approach in dealing with China.

The centrality of ASEAN in the Indo-Pacific has been emphasised by the Quad, hence their inclusion into it is another debatable issue, due to Chinese influence over them. There are differences within ASEAN grouping in response to Chinese claim over the nine-dash line in SCS. Some of the affected ASEAN countries have earlier raised a feeble voice against Chinese aggression, expecting world powers to check Chinese adventurism.

They have generally tried to maintain cordial relations with both the US and China without being seen to be taking sides. This has emboldened China to continue incremental encroachment in SCS.

The common focus of Quad is to implement its idea of a free and Open Indo-Pacific on a “rules-based” legal framework to secure freedom of navigation in the global SLOC needs some introspection and strengthening. Australia, India and Japan, have ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS III), however, the US is yet to ratify the same. This ratification will be necessary to have a moral high ground to implement the same. 

Considering the prevailing international strategic scenario, China is reasonably confident that the US or any other country will not use military force against it. Moreover, Beijing is also increasing its naval capability. In this context, it is necessary that Quad strengthens itself beyond Malabar exercises. 

Quad members must continue freedom of navigation exercises and military posturing in Indo-Pacific as China continues to do so. The global community must continue to condemn Chinese encroachment. Quad, in its present form, may not be effective enough to check Chinese adventurism, but it certainly has potential to become one of the effective instruments to do so, provided the affected countries and the global community unite against their common concerns.

(Views expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)